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South Florida congressmen avoid immigration issue, endorse Rick Scott

Miami's three Republican Cuban-American members of Congress threw their support behind Rick Scott on Monday, despite not seeing eye-to-eye with the GOP gubernatorial candidate on one of the signature issues of their congressional careers: immigration.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who had backed Attorney General Bill McCollum for governor in the brutal Republican primary, admitted that they disagree with Scott's support of bringing an Arizona-style immigration law to Florida, a centerpiece of his primary campaign.

Yet they still endorsed Scott because they like his emphasis on creating jobs and lowering taxes, they said.

"That's what Floridians care about: Who is going to keep our taxes low? Who is going to spend less of our money? And who is going to help us create jobs?" Ros-Lehtinen said.

The trio of representatives brushed aside concerns about the $1.7 billion fraud scandal tied to Scott's former hospital business, Columbia/HCA. "I think Rick has been very clear and very up front about it," Mario Diaz-Balart said, questioning Democrat Alex Sink's business record.

And neither Scott nor the members of Congress mentioned the i-word.

But the immigration issue came up during a sometimes tense news conference with Scott at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Coral Gables. The lawmakers had forcefully voiced their opposition and disappointment during the final days of the GOP primary when McCollum unveiled a last-minute immigration plan he called "tougher'' in some ways than Arizona's controversial measure.

At the time, Ros-Lehtinen, a co-chair of McCollum's Hispanic leadership team, declared herself "blindsided'' by McCollum's proposal and said other issues were more important. Ads running on Spanish-language radio with Lincoln Diaz-Balart praising McCollum were pulled.

Polls show the Arizona measure is popular among voters — except with Hispanics, the fastest growing part of the electorate and an important constituency in South and Central Florida.

On Monday, the congressional Republicans said they also disagree on immigration with Sink, who opposes an Arizona-style law but would require business owners and state agencies to validate employees' legal status.

"Since we disagree with both candidates on immigration, on what do we have to focus on?" Lincoln Diaz-Balart asked, in Spanish after answering the question in English. "I think it's, 'Who's prepared to create jobs from day one?' "

Quipped Ros-Lehtinen: "I can't even get my own family to agree with me on most of my issues."

Though the three congressional Republicans have been moderates on their immigration views, Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, in particular, have made the topic one of their key issues. In 1994, the two were among only three GOP House members who refused to sign their party's "Contract With America'' because it called for cutting off benefits to legal immigrants.

And when he was seeking re-election two years ago, Lincoln Diaz-Balart said his proudest achievement in Congress was a 1997 law that prevented an estimated 150,000 Nicaraguans from being deported. Passing "fair and sensible immigration legislation," he added, was one of his priorities.

Kyra Jennings, press secretary for Sink's campaign, called the trio's endorsement of Scott "flip-flopping'' after criticizing Scott during the primary.

"This is yet another illustration of divisive partisan politics," Jennings said in a statement. "Republicans are desperate to salvage their power and save their own jobs. This has nothing to do with what's in the best interest of Floridians and who will do best by them."

In recent weeks, Sink has picked up support from a couple of Cuban-American Republicans, including state Sen. Alex Villalobos and newly elected Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado, daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.

Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.

South Florida congressmen avoid immigration issue, endorse Rick Scott 10/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 10:29am]
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